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Harper's Tories: How Summer Break Couldn't Have Come Soon Enough

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STEPHEN HARPER SPRING SESSION
The summer recess could not have come quickly enough for the prime minister and his Conservative government. (CP) | Getty

With the House of Commons closing its doors for the summer, how have the main party leaders performed? In the last of three articles, we look at Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

The summer recess could not have come quickly enough for the prime minister and his Conservative government.

When the House of Commons adjourned on Tuesday, it ended the worst parliamentary season the government has faced, and one that it will have difficulty recovering from.

The byelections last fall hinted at a weakness in the Conservative heartland. Though the party did well to retain Bev Oda’s seat of Durham, they almost lost Calgary Centre — a riding in their backyard — to the Liberals.

The government looked flat-footed and unprepared to handle the fallout from the Idle No More protests, which dominated headlines for weeks. Though the protests were eventually quelled through negotiation, it cost the government a minister and knocked them off balance as 2013 began.

On the economic front, Tories passed a budget that was less of an omnibus than previous years but still put in question the government’s ability to erase the deficit by 2015. There was $3 billion of anti-terrorism spending that went unaccounted for and the Keystone XL pipeline appears no closer to being approved than when MPs last returned to work in the fall.

Stephen Harper returned from Europe this week without any real good news on a prospective free trade agreement with the European Union.

But in the last few months, it has been the approach Tories have taken to politics and government that has begun to backfire on them.

Peter Penashue’s defeat in Labrador marked the first time Conservatives suffered a loss in a byelection where they were the incumbent party. The robocall ruling identified no link between the Conservative party and calls in the last election directing non-Tory supporters to the wrong polling booths, but the judge found that whoever was behind the calls must have had access to the party’s CIMS database. The judge also mentioned how the Conservative MPs involved had thrown up obstacles to the trial.

There were the ugly attacks aimed at Justin Trudeau that probably did more to put Tories in a bad light than they did Trudeau. Backbenchers were up in arms over their inability to speak about abortion, and then Brent Rathgeber, a Conservative MP from Alberta, slammed his door on the Tory caucus with a scathing critique about the party having become everything it mocked before coming to power. And there were attempts by the PMO to spread information about Trudeau’s speaking fees, asking the media to name them as an anonymous source.

Of course, what will most be remembered about the recent sitting was the expense scandal in the Senate.

The alleged wrongdoing of a few senators, three Conservatives appointed by Harper and one Liberal, in and of itself, would only have given the government a black eye — nothing fatal. But the $90,000 cheque from Harper’s chief of staff Nigel Wright to Senator Mike Duffy, and the handling of the fallout from the deal, have done more damage to the Tory brand than anything that has happened since the party won the 2006 election. Many questions still remain and the vast majority of Canadians reached in a recent Nanos poll said they were unsatisfied with the prime minister’s explanation.

Speaking of the polls, they have been uniformly bad for Conservatives. The party has dropped six points since September, polling at around 28 per cent — an all-time low for this government. Tories have a smaller lead over the third place New Democrats than the gap between themselves and the Liberals. The party has retained the lead only in their fortresses of Alberta and the Prairies, have fallen well behind in seat-rich Ontario and are on the verge of extinction in Quebec.

The summer will provide Conservatives with some much-needed respite after a year in which there has been no silver lining. The prime minister would not have done well to have been grilled by Thomas Mulcair in question period for another week or two. But politics usually fall into stasis during the summer — which means that when September rolls around the bleeding might start all over again.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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